If you know TWELFTH NIGHT, you’ll know before a minute passes that The Fiasco Theater’s production is going to be an imaginative one.
Shakespeare started with a shipwreck; Fiasco directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld do The Bard one better by starting with the crew of the ship singing a jolly sea chantey about how great their vessel is.
And THEN comes the shipwreck.
Twins Viola and Sebastian are separated, and while both survive, Shakespeare keeps from us that Sebastian has made it until Act Two. Up until then, we only deal with Viola.
Although she’s in a strange land, she assumes it is a man’s world like any other, so she’ll morph into a lad named Caesario and get a job with Count Orsino (Brody does fine here, too). He wants “him” to go and convince Olivia that he’s the man for her.
When we first meet her, we see she’ll be hard to convince. Here’s an ice queen who reduces all to crushed ice. Making her seem even more imposing is her being totally dressed in black out of mourning for her deceased brother.
So having Caesario (the thrilling Emily Young) remark on the lady’s “radiant exquisite unmatchable beauty” while her face is totally obfuscated by a black veil is an odd choice.
Well, TWELFTH NIGHT is a comedy (for everyone but Malvolio) so perhaps the directors wanted to make a little joke.
And yet, Jessie Austrian’s Olivia melts like a snowball in Dante’s Inferno when she casts eyes on Caesario. Now she’s suddenly becomes, to quote a STATE FAIR lyric, as giddy as a baby on a swing.
Andy Grotelueschen plays Sir Toby Belch nice and subtly; instead of a drunk who slurs his words, he’s unsteady on his feet, although he tries very hard to hide his staggering. (We’re not fooled.)
Grotelueschen — who was an estimable cow in Fiasco’s INTO THE WOODS — is now a pig who thinks nothing of locking his legs firmly around Maria’s waist in those times when, sad to say, sexual harassment wasn’t yet a factor. As for that waist, it belongs to the excellent Tina Chilip. She very much resembles Nanette Fabray in looks and talent. (Know no Nanette? That’s what YouTube is for.)
Although I’ve now witnessed 19 productions of TWELFTH NIGHT, I’m always surprised when Malvolio reads what Maria wrote to him allegedly on Olivia’s behalf: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Doesn’t the line seem more befitting one of Shakespeare’s histories? But here it is, said with appropriately startled wonder by Paul L. Coffey. He proves that some ill-tempered men simply need the love of a good woman to come alive.
Shakespeare titled his play TWELFTH NIGHT as a reference to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (not “Twelve Days TO Christmas,” which appears in a completely different work of art). As a result, Brody and Steinfeld include the famous Yuletide ditty and editorialize that the damn thing never seems to end. (Think of Mrs. Lovett’s asking Beadle Bamford “How many bells are there?” and you’ll get the point.)
There are also some other time-honored devices that haven’t been seen in a while and will be welcome sights for theatrically experienced eyes. Case in point: Caesario suddenly enters running at 60 mph (or, if you will, a mile a minute). We soon see why: Olivia enters running just-as-swiftly in pursuit. But as soon as she sees that almost everyone else on stage is watching her and surprised that this elegant lady is behaving so atypically, she immediately stops, regains her dignity and c-a-s-u-a-l-l-y walks past them — until the moment she believes that they’re out of eyeshot (in fact, they’re not) and resumes her previous frenetic speed.
So present mirth indeed has present laughter, which co-director Steinfeld helps by being a fine Feste, the so-called “fool.” But Fiasco can’t overcome the problem that has plagued every production of TWELFTH NIGHT that I’ve caught: Sebastian and Viola never resemble each other enough to confuse anyone. That’s certainly the case with Emily Young and Javier Ignacio. Costume designer Emily Rebholz has put both in brown sweaters and grey pants, but that wouldn’t nearly be enough for the swarthier and heavier Ignacio to be mistaken for Young. (And where did they both get those same outfits?)
Putting it another way: HOW TO SUCCEED’s “Paris Original” has every secretary wearing the same dress – yet no one mistakes Smitty for Rosemary or anyone else. It’s the face that’s the factor.
Considering that Viola and Sebastian are fraternal twins, the ideal solution would be to find a talented twosome where each greatly resembles the other. That’s much easier said than done, of course, but there is a second-best option: cast a brother and sister who look somewhat alike.
So how about it, Hunter and Sutton Foster? Want to do TWELFTH NIGHT?